Monday, February 21, 2005

The Straits Times gives its take on funding for biomed 

The Straits Times carries a report today entitled “Ignorance closes door to biomed funding” which claims that the lack of local biomedical funding is the result of ignorance on the part of the financial sector.

[O]ne crucial ingredient for a successful [biomedical] hub is sorely missing: funding and support from the financial sector. Local biomedical firms say venture capitalists, financial institutions, the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) and investors here generally have a limited understanding of the sector's unique characteristics and funding needs. Few appreciate its special traits: enormous capital costs, long development periods, high risks — and potentially immense returns.
If the biomedical sector is characterised by enormous capital costs, long development periods and high risks, why not blame the lack of funding on these characteristics, rather than ignorance? If anything, the financial sector may be reluctant to invest in biomed precisely because it is well aware of these sector traits. Not everyone — even venture capitalists — can afford to take the risks that some biomedical investments entail.

The report seems to lack balance. While it quotes several people from the biomedical sector, the closest it comes to quoting someone from the financial sector was when it mentions Dr Beh Swan Gin, director of the biomedical sciences group with the Economic Development Board — which provides some biomedical funding — as saying that “there are very few [venture capitalists based in Singapore] with expertise in biomedical sciences”.

The report also mentions a group called BioSingapore which, among other things, aims to help biomedical firms get access to finance. It says:

With about 30 new members in the past three months, the group is plugging away to sell this message: it’s worth putting your faith and money in Singapore’s biomed future, even if lucrative returns take time.
Anybody who knows anything about financial advisory knows that you don’t make such a blanket recommendation on investment without knowing the specific financial circumstances of the target of the recommendation. As far as I can tell, BioSingapore itself does not make such an explicit recommendation in writing. Even if it did, the newspaper is not obliged to parrot what the group says.

If The Straits Times is intent on putting out a piece of advocacy, I guess this report is a passable one. Otherwise, it should stick to maintaining some sense of journalistic balance.


"Journalistic balance" and "Straits Times" do not compute in the same sentence. And while the group has laudable ambitions, it is still going to have to admit the fact that Singapore still lacks the critical mass of researchers that forms a sustainable research community. VCs and other investors have to keep in mind that the limiting factor in the biomedical sciences is not instrumentation, land or lab space; it is the creativity and ingenuity of the human mind that is most sorely needed. And that is a resource that you can't buy easily.

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